Saturday, 5 April 2014

Standing on the shoulders of drowning men.

There was a time of political checks and balances. There was a time when whatever Labour did when in power, Tories undid when they took office, and Labour duly returned the favour in their turn. There was a time when the Government stood firm, and little changed one way or another without a damned good reason for it to happen. The NHS was a product of such times.

And then came New Labour, and the wholesale shift to the right of British politics. Tony Blair, the promised one, the man who could make a difference. And what a difference he made.

When Labour took power under Blair, this was a new kind of politics. It was progressive. Its MPs were younger, prettier, less battle scarred and more idealistic. Its policies were new, brave, fresh (and mostly stolen).

The whole position changed. New Labour took over the traditional political position of the Tories after their inevitable implosion and slow resurrection in the even-further-right. Lib Dems did what Lib Dems do - they wallowed around without any clear idea of what they were trying to achieve, but did it somewhere between the right and the even-further-right of the other two parties.

Except now, all three parties were trying to out-progressive the other two, because thats what the public want to see, right? Progressive politics worked for Blair, so we need to be doing some of that, got it? Good. And how do you out-progressive the other two? By basing your policies on even less reliable information, and even more marginal, progressive science.

The upshot of all this new-fangled politicking and progressiveness was that they had to develop new policies (when policies werent conveniently placed to steal), and that meant new sources of information and accepting more marginal viewpoints than the mainstream scientific views you would expect from a Government responsible for the welfare of 60 million people.

It led to the rise of the Health and Safety Man, the public health "expert". You know the type. In school they were the ones who couldn't play football, had a hard time making friends, but weren't smart enough or talented enough to be nerds. Nowadays you will most likely find them bathed in the light of important looking databases, surrounded by important looking box files, and sporting engagingly colourful ties. And they still have no friends. Its their purpose to tell you to tie your shoe laces, to not run with scissors, and that breathing a few particles of second hand smoke will permanently damage your child.

These "experts" in public health base their opinions on a rigid, evidence based, scientific approach. No, stop laughing, they do. The quality of the science involved is however open to question. When each successive government, whether national or local, is pressing you for more progressive ideas to safeguard our nations kiddiwinks, you may find yourself... ahh... blue sky thinking*. You need to keep coming up with new ideas and new approaches based on the latest science.

Now, sure, fine, if that science is real and accurate then there's not going to be a problem - whatever policy you put in place, if its grounded in a solid basis of evidence, is likely to be successful and any consequences will be foreseen and mitigated. But as Charles Fort** said:
I conceive of nothing, in religion, science, or philosophy, that is more than the proper thing to wear, for a while.
Science changes. Thats the basis, and the strength, of the entire scientific establishment. Knowledge isnt finite, at least not yet. We build upon a reliable footing of evidence to take the next logical, rational step, and that becomes the new status quo. What happens then when your evidential basis is shaky? Where does that leave you, when those policies are enacted? As Charles Fort also said:
The outrageous is the reasonable, if introduced politely.
You take a marginal viewpoint, without either solid evidence or scientific consensus, and add to that a pathological need to be progressive, to come up with new issues that simply must be addressed, and new braver ways of dealing with old issues. You base your policies upon the views of the people who can most successfully and reliably give you these things. And you keep going. You want newer, braver, ways of impacting the new issues-that-were-never-issues-before, of making more headway against whatever drivel the red top press is having palpitations about this week. The new feeds upon the old. Science is driven forward at disproportionate rates without stopping to properly evaluate the effects of the previous steps. The feedback loop is broken, and like a microphone in front of an amplifier you feed output directly to input until...

Well, until all you can hear is an incoherent scream.

* Less charitable authors than myself may class this as "making shit up".
** Not that Charles Fort should be held up as a paragon of scientific virtue - far from it - but he does provide good quotes.

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